Tight, quick, zingy with one-liners and applause-worthy scenes, Michael Hollinger's Red Herring, now at Act II Playhouse in Ambler through Nov. 19, is a classic — and classical — fast-talking comedy. At Act II, it is getting an ideal airing, with six crack comic actors, deft timing, sure-handed direction by David Bradley, and well-crafted silliness that makes you laugh a lot.
Since it debuted at Arden Theatre Company in 2000, this local product has gone on to success all over the place. Hollinger has been steadily pumping out the plays since his early-1980s beginnings at the Arden; a second Hollinger show, the musical TouchTones, is now debuting there.
We're near Election Day, 1952. Sen. Joseph McCarthy is bullying the world. His (totally fictional) daughter Lynn is courted by James Apple, who reveals he's a Soviet spy. Played with tender cluelessness by Act II managing director Eileen Cella, Lynn is not the brightest button on the chemise. James (gawky Patrick Romano) asks her to make a midnight drop of A-bomb diagrams, concealed in a box of Velveeta cheese — which is not, we are forever reminded, really cheese. She awkwardly asks Mom what to do if a man makes bizarre requests. Mrs. McCarthy (the fabulous Hayden Saunier) asks: "Was it a number?"
That's the plot, but none of it is the point. This is a classical comedy. We have three couples in parallel, all mistaken about who they are, who's alive or not, who loves them or not; around a cleverly serviceable set by Colin McIlvaine, they chase these mistakes, missing the future right in front of them. So the play wears lightly its noir/detective flick/Cold War trappings. Like the illusions our sixsome chase, all these things are red herrings, distractions — even the H-bomb. It does go boom at Bikini Atoll, but to silly effect — it blinds dummkopf James, who looks right at it. (Warning to certain world leaders.) The point is the comedy of gut-busting errors.
Rachel Camp winningly plays cop Maggie Pelletier, who circles her man Frank Keller, inhabited with suffering panache by ubiquitous Charlie DelMarcelle. (Frank: "Didn't anybody ever tell you it's rude to shout another man's name while makin' love?" Maggie: "I figured 'Oh, Jesus' was exempt.") The night's best-received scene finds Maggie at a bar with a badly disguised Andrei, played hilariously by David Ingram. He drinks vodka from a spoon. She asks why. Answer: "When I use a fork, it splashes on my pants." Hurray for Saunier, who plays three tough-gal roles with many of the best lines, including "Sometimes a girl's gotta do what a girl just did" and "How dare you hit a man without a spine?"
Love may call us to the world, but it often calls us to turn around and tend to what's more important. It's the mess and how it gets cleaned up. Red Herring is an evening of deft, droll, often-uproarious fun.